Doug Caruso, N’dea Yancey-Bragg, Rachel Looker
February 23, 2023
When a child vanishes, families expect authorities to use every resource to find them. That expectation often includes an Amber Alert, lighting up smartphones for miles around with details about the missing.
But Amber Alerts are extremely rare and, even when they are used, it’s unclear how much they help bring children home safely, a USA TODAY analysis of the alerts shows. And even though Black children receive Amber Alerts at about the same rate they are reported missing, reporters found the alerts are far less likely to play a part in finding them.
Delays and confusion are common. Authorities often spend crucial hours trying to meet strict requirements for an Amber Alert to be issued. Families facing the terrifying disappearance of a child are left baffled about why they did not get one or whether broadcasting their children’s information more quickly over phones, radio, television, social media and highway signs would have brought them home sooner – or at all.
Eugene Bynum Jr.’s toddler grandson, King Walker, disappeared in Gary, Indiana, in 2015 and is still missing. Records show the state turned down a local police request for an Amber Alert in the case because it didn’t meet criteria. Bynum said police told him they needed a license plate number.
“I thought an Amber Alert was like: ‘OK, someone’s missing, let’s find this person. Let’s get this face out there,’” he said. “That’s what I thought an Amber Alert was.”
Since last spring, as part of its ongoing project to examine disparities in how cases of missing children are handled, USA TODAY has been analyzing detailed data on Amber Alerts. For this story, reporters reviewed records of alerts going back to 2017. For six months last year, they followed up with police on every alert issued across the nation to gauge the outcome. They also interviewed families, police and experts.
Amber Alerts are issued for just a tiny fraction of missing-child cases in the United States. In 2021, there were 254 Amber Alerts compared with the more than 337,000 missing-child reports local police agencies logged with the FBI – less than one alert for every 1,000 children.
From 2017 through the end of 2021, Black children made up 37% of missing-child reports and nearly 37% of Amber Alerts, USA TODAY found, indicating the alerts are issued proportionately.
Amber Alerts by race of the child
Nearly 37% of Amber Alerts were issued for missing Black children from 2017 to 2021. A similar proportion of missing reports police sent to the FBI were for Black children.
Most children who receive Amber Alerts are found safe, police told USA TODAY, but the alert itself was credited in just 1 in 4 Amber Alerts across the country over six months last year. The alerts worked best for white and Hispanic children, helping in about 1 in 3 cases, compared with 1 in 7 involving Black children.
Experts were not sure why.
Gaétane Borders, president of Peas in Their Pods, which has advocated for missing children of color since 2007, speculated that bias and fear may play a role. Even when an Amber Alert goes out, news outlets might pay less attention to alerts about children of color, she said. And alerts for Black children could be delayed if police don’t take them seriously or Black families hesitate to report a missing child out of distrust for law enforcement.
People who receive the Amber Alerts also could be more likely to see white children, especially girls, as victims, Borders said, and scroll by images of Black children.
“There are so many pieces to this,” she said, “but what we do know is that it’s not working well.”
What does it take for parents to get an Amber Alert?
The first Amber Alert program started in 1996, when Dallas-Fort Worth radio and television stations banded together to use the federal Emergency Alert System to quickly broadcast news of child abductions. That effort came in response to the case of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who had been abducted and killed in Arlington, Texas, earlier that year.
Amber, for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response,” quickly became part of federal and state laws.
In almost every state, Amber Alerts can be issued only by regional or state coordinators, usually within a state police force, following guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice and individual state laws when local police request them. Most guidelines allow alerts for endangered, abducted children 17 or younger only when there is enough information to help the public find the child.
That rules out missing children considered runaways, the designation in most missing-child cases. Unless there is a clear danger to the child, some states also will not issue alerts for abductions stemming from child custody disputes – the cause of most abductions.
It’s time to revisit Amber Alert criteria to remove the prohibition on children who run away, said Derrica Wilson, a former police officer and co-founder of Black and Missing, which helps families find missing children of color. The criteria should focus on danger to the child, she said, and the classification of “runaway” should be eliminated.
“These children are missing,” she said.
When local police have a missing-child case they believe could warrant an Amber Alert, they contact a state or regional coordinator. The coordinator runs through a list of criteria with the requesting officer before deciding whether to send out the alert. The coordinator also can ask officers to gather more information.
“When we put that Amber Alert out, we want to be very, very clear that there is genuinely a child in danger,” said First Lt. Jay Poupard, statewide Amber Alert coordinator for Michigan State Police. “We know that child was threatened. We know the type of vehicle and the license plate of the vehicle. We know their direction of travel.”
Issuing alerts too often, or with too little information, Poupard said, risks public fatigue, causing people to ignore them instead of keeping their eyes peeled for a missing child.
What delayed the Amber Alert for abducted Ohio twins?
Hours ticked by into the night after the abduction of 5-month-old twin boys in Columbus, Ohio, in December. The twins’ family called the Ohio State Highway Patrol three times demanding to know why an Amber Alert had not yet gone out, according to a highway patrol timeline.
Both Columbus police and highway patrol officials acknowledged delays in issuing the alert. “Not ideal,” was how Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant summed up the timing, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
“I understand you want to get as many details as you can, but when (Amber Alerts) fail, it’s because they didn’t go out in a timely fashion and they were dealing with details,” said DaVanté Goins, a Columbus-based journalist who has been acting as a spokesman for the Thomas family.
The boys’ parents hope their case will spur changes in the system, he said, to get alerts out quickly and remove barriers to helping other families recover their missing kids.
At 9:45 p.m. on Dec. 19, the twins’ mother, Wilhelmina Barnett, was inside a Columbus pizzeria picking up a DoorDash order for delivery when a woman stole her car. It was unlocked and idling, with Kason and Ky’air Thomas in the back seat. The restaurant called Columbus police, who arrived by 9:52 p.m.
Starting at 10:17 p.m., more than 50 Columbus police officers searched for the car, and a police helicopter joined in. Neighboring police agencies joined the search.
Nearly two hours after the abduction, a Columbus police sergeant first called to request an Amber Alert at 11:41 p.m., according to the highway patrol. He “was concerned one could not be issued because of the lack of vehicle information, no license plate and no confirmed suspect,” a highway patrol report said.
At 12:16 a.m., another Columbus police sergeant and the watch desk “determined the incident met the Amber Alert criteria and an alert would be activated statewide.” The Amber Alert eventually described the car as a black 2010 Honda Accord missing its front bumper.
Columbus police were supposed to enter a code in the statewide law enforcement database that would notify federal, state and local officials of the alert. The highway patrol watch desk commander continued to take steps toward activating the alert, said Capt. Ronald Raines. When the code still had not been entered at 1:08 a.m., the commander got permission from his supervisor to activate the Amber Alert on smartphones.
At 1:18 a.m., the watch desk sent a script for the alert to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which had to activate the alert because Ohio’s system wasn’t working. But it was too long, more than the 90-character limit. For the next 20 minutes, the watch desk and the National Center traded edits of the script.
Finally, at 1:38 a.m., nearly four hours after the report of the twins’ abduction, the alert lit up phones across the state.
Ky’air Thomas was found early that morning in his car seat about 70 miles away in a parking lot at the Dayton airport. His brother, Kason, would remain missing for nearly three days, found only after two women in Indianapolis recognized the accused kidnapper in a Facebook post about the Amber Alert.
Tragically, Ky’air died about a month later, on Jan. 28. His family called 911 to report he was not breathing. Columbus Police are investigating the death, and autopsy results are pending.
How effective are Amber Alerts?
USA TODAY contacted police and sheriff’s departments involved in 96 Amber Alerts across the country from April 3 through Oct. 1 last year and asked whether the alert directly had helped locate the missing child. In a quarter of the 80 cases in which police answered, they said the child was found either because someone saw the alert and called in a tip or because an abductor saw the alert and contacted police.
That’s a slightly higher rate than shown in statistics kept by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which identified such success stories in about one-fifth of alerts from 2017 to 2021.
Did the Amber Alert play a role in recovery?
In 20 of the 80 Amber Alert cases in which police answered, or 25%, officers told USA TODAY that the alert directly led to the recovery of the child.
Timothy Griffin, an associate criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, has studied Amber Alerts for nearly two decades. He has called them “crime-control theater.” His take: Amber Alerts usually don’t work, and most children will be found safe with or without one.
Griffin’s study of nearly 500 Amber Alerts from 2012 to 2015 found that whether the child’s abductor was an acquaintance or a stranger was a far more important factor in safe recovery than whether the Amber Alert generated a helpful tip.
“This in turn suggests ‘successful’ Amber Alerts are not likely ‘rescuing’ children from imminent harm,” he wrote in a 2021 paper.
In cases where harm is imminent, Griffin told USA TODAY, authorities almost never issue an Amber Alert fast enough to prevent a tragedy.
He points to FBI research in 2011 that showed nearly 75% of children murdered by an abductor were killed within the first three hours of their disappearance. In 2021, fewer than a third of Amber Alerts were activated within three hours, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Time to issue Amber Alerts
Fewer than one third of Amber Alerts were issued within three hours of the report of a missing child from 2017 to 2021.
That makes Amber Alerts – and most any other efforts – all but useless to prevent murder, Griffin said.
“In the cases where the abductor is motivated to do the worst,” he said, “there is virtually never enough time for anything law enforcement or the public can do to intervene to prevent it.”
How often do children sought in Amber Alerts die?
Nalani Johnson was one of 29 children who were found dead after an Amber Alert was issued for them between 2017 and 2021, according to records USA TODAY reviewed. That’s out of more than 1,100 children for whom an outcome could be determined.
When a woman drove off with Nalani in 2019, two weeks before the toddler’s second birthday, her father called 911 and gave the Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, police department the information needed for an Amber Alert, according to Nalani’s grandmother, Taji Walsh. The alert went out more than two hours later.
“In my heart, I believe that had this information gone out sooner, Nalani would still be here with us,” Walsh said.
But Shawn Kofluk, who was Pennsylvania’s Amber Alert coordinator at the time, said even though his office had to spend time asking local investigators for more information, Nalani’s alert went out faster than most.
Police caught Nalani’s abductor within 20 minutes of the alert, Kofluk said. Three days later, the toddler’s body was found in a park nearly 40 miles outside Penn Hills. The Indiana County Coroner’s Office determined her death was a homicide. Sharena Nancy, who police said was in a romantic relationship with Nalani’s father, would plead guilty to third-degree murder and kidnapping in Nalani’s death.
After her granddaughter’s death, Walsh pushed to change Pennsylvania law to require police to immediately issue Amber Alerts in abductions involving young children if a family member reports the child was abducted by a person outside the family. A petition for the bill, dubbed the Nalani Johnson Rule, garnered more than 22,000 signatures, but Walsh said the legislation stalled after the October death of its initial sponsor, state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, a Democrat.
Among the children found dead after an alert, Nalani was one of a dozen who had been abducted, according to media reports about their cases. In 13 other cases, the child’s killer – usually a parent – lied to authorities about an abduction or disappearance, and the child was already dead when the alert was issued. In three cases, the child wandered off and was ruled to have accidentally drowned, and in one a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl walked away from her home. Her death was ruled a suicide.
How often are requests for Amber Alerts denied?
For more than 12 months, from June 2019 through June 2020, Michigan State Police denied every request for an Amber Alert. Records show local police asked for 12 alerts during that time, most of them classified as either runaways or family abductions.
That was an extreme, but records USA TODAY gathered from Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio listing every local request to state authorities seeking an Amber Alert also showed alert coordinators often turned down requests. No national data exists.
In Indiana, state police approved 52% of requests for Amber Alerts over about five years. The most common reason for rejection there was “Located prior to activation.” Others were marked “Did not meet criteria.” Wisconsin approved 28% of requests. In Ohio, it was 61%.
In Michigan, from January 2017 through June 2022, local police called in 86 requests for Amber Alerts. The state coordinator approved 19, just 22%.
Poupard, Michigan’s statewide Amber Alerts coordinator, said the Michigan State Police were able to offer resources to help find missing children in lieu of an Amber Alert. These can include tracking dogs, aircraft or other kinds of alerts that notify the media and police.
“Most agencies when they’re calling us, they’re not calling and asking our permission,” Poupard said. “They’re calling to ask us for guidance about whether an Amber Alert meets the criteria to be issued.”
Michigan, for instance, has Endangered Missing Advisories that go to the news media and police. In Indiana, Silver Alerts take on that role. Ohio has Endangered Missing Child Alerts.
Some departments are routinely turned down for Amber Alerts. In Flint, Michigan all five requests were turned down from 2017 through June of last year. In Lansing, it was five out of six.
But officers appeared to take it in stride, saying issuing too many alerts could cause people to start ignoring them. Jordan Gulkis, a spokeswoman for the Lansing Police Department, also noted that the state police have other tools.
“They do offer other resources,” she said.
What can happen when an Amber Alert is turned down?
King Walker and Diamond Bynum’s family woke from a nap late on a Saturday morning in July to find a door standing open and the pair missing. Family members started their own search and called the police in Gary, Indiana. They told officers that Bynum, 21, had serious intellectual disabilities that made it impossible for her to care for King, her 2-year-old nephew.
That day, July 25, 2015, Gary police requested an Amber Alert, according to Indiana State Police records, but it was turned down. “Does not meet criteria,” the entry says.
Nearly eight years later, both the boy and Bynum remain missing.
“I don’t understand why the state police would deny it when we have a 2-year-old and a special needs person,” said La Shann Walker, who is Bynum’s mother and King’s grandmother. “Even though she’s 21, he’s basically taking care of himself.”
Indiana’s criteria for issuing an Amber Alert say the missing child must be under 18 years of age, law enforcement must confirm the child has been abducted and officers must believe the child is in danger of harm or death. The criteria also call for “enough descriptive information to believe that the broadcast will help.”
Angela Meachum, who took charge of Indiana’s Amber Alert program in 2019, four years after King and Bynum disappeared, referred USA TODAY to Gary police. “My educated guess is that it wasn’t considered an abduction, and there was no law broken,” she said.
Gary police did not respond to requests for comment, and the city’s law department denied a public records request for documents, saying the case is still under investigation.
Eugene Bynum, King’s grandfather, said Gary police told him they could not get an Amber Alert because there was no license plate number associated with the disappearance. Nothing in the state’s criteria requires a license-plate number or a car description, but experts say having those details helps a request meet the standard of available “descriptive information.”
To this day, La Shann Walker believes an early Amber Alert could have made all the difference.
“I think if we would have gotten an Amber Alert, everybody would have known about it,” Walker said. “And I believe if they were close at that particular time, they wouldn’t have gone this far, and I believe we would have found them by now.”
Photo credit: USA Today, Getty Images